Why the Hell Would You Give Your Photos to Starbucks for Free?

A successful travel photographer recently announced that he would willingly give his photos to Starbucks to use on Instagram for free, as long as they weren’t marketing a product. I was so shocked that I almost spat out my coffee.

Even more alarming was that none of his followers seemed to think that this was a strange thing to do. People didn't seem to understand how content marketing works, and surely photographers should know better than most.

To explain: Photographer Brendan van Son recently released this video explaining how he filed a copyright infringement notice with Instagram (for a simple explanation of how to do this, check out this article). A Greek travel company had taken one of his images and posted it to their Instagram account, adding a caption that meant it was clearly using Van Son's content to market its brand to its 198,000 followers. Understandably, van Son took action, filed a claim and the image was removed.

Van Son discussed his logic for filing copyright claims, explaining that many accounts get a pass if they credit him and as long as they’re not directly selling something in the caption:

I should talk about what commercial means on Instagram. What is that line? Where is that line? For me, that line is obviously commercial, directly commercial. It’s not just vaguely commercial; it has to be direct.

Then came the part that left me almost speechless. He continues: if Starbucks were to use an image on its Instagram to directly advertise one of their products, van Son would be filing a claim or sending an invoice. However, if Starbucks were to use one of his photos of someone sipping a beverage and used a caption that did little more than describe the scene and credit van Son — this would be fine. No copyright infringement claim, no invoice sent, no complaint as long as he got his credit. This is incredible.

Everything on Instagram Is an Advert

Putting aside the fact that Starbucks, in this hypothetical situation, is using the image without permission, if you think that just because it’s not directly selling a product then it’s not actually advertising it, then you need to learn how content marketing works. If Van Son had chosen a tiny, independent coffee shop that over the years had let him idle at one of their tables for hours at a time while spending very little money, I’d understand that he wouldn’t mind helping them out through the personal connection he has with the company. But Starbucks?

I scoured the comments for people sharing my alarm. Nothing. No-one batted an eyelid at the thought of giving images away for free to a billion-dollar, multinational corporation as long as that corporation doesn’t use the image to specifically advertise something. Surely, of all people, photographers should understand how Instagram functions.

Van Son differentiates between a post that is "directly commercial" — mentioning a specific product — and "vaguely commercial" — the photos and videos that show a product but are not specifically telling you to buy it. What this blithely ignores is that the stuff that is "vaguely commercial" is a massive industry and can be more effective in selling a product and publicizing a brand than the other, more traditional mode of marketing.

Curating Carefully Crafted Content to Create a Connection

Content marketing is the new advertising and can be seen to hold more power over the modern day consumer. In the days when media was little more than scheduled broadcasting, billboards, magazines and newspapers, things were different. Adverts were obvious, drawing eyeballs to allocated slots that were clearly separate from editorial content. But with the advent of sponsored content, product placements, brand partnerships, and social media, the line between advertorial and editorial has become increasingly blurred.

For companies, social media is huge. Billions of dollars are spent on Instagram content marketing and direct advertising, and the spending will increase year on year for the foreseeable future. This money is not spent solely on those posts featuring the word “sponsored” in small letters next to them. It’s spent on creating aspirational content, copywriting, consultants, media managers, coordinated campaigns, tie-ins, influencer endorsements, and so much more.

For companies, Instagram is more than just a shop window. Every hashtag, every full stop, and every pixel of every image and video is an advert. Companies used to spend endless money designing a logo and a color scheme; nowadays, alongside that, they spend it curating the perfect image of how they want their company to be perceived and the majority of this happens through social media. Branding is how a company creates a bond between its products and its customers, giving you that sense of trust or prestige when you use that product, prompting you to choose one brand over another.

And on social media, everything is branding. Everything — including the posts where a product is not even seen. Every company is crafting a relationship with its audience and every post is painstakingly selected to reflect and reinforce that brand’s values. If an image captures a certain vibe, it can be exploited.


Take this video from Starbucks explaining how it specifically supports veterans and military spouses. It’s an admirable policy for which I give the corporation a huge amount of respect. That said, is this advertising? Absolutely. If it’s on social media and shaping the way in which a brand is perceived — as a warm and cozy company that takes care of its employees — it’s part of a content marketing strategy. The use of Van Son’s image would be no different. And be assured: this is not to say that Starbucks’ intentions are completely cynical or that they should be singled out for an exploitative marketing ploy (see "woke washing"). This is just how capitalism functions.

Giving It for Free Is Working for Free

Whatever Van Son’s reasons, giving your images away to companies to use for social media is not that different from working for free. We frequently hear frustrations from those who see their fellow photographers and videographers giving away their time and expertise in exchange for exposure or a foot in the door. Letting a company use your image on their Instagram is no different, even if the caption isn’t selling something. You are advertising for them. You should get paid, and the fact that you’re willingly giving up your work for nothing undermines the efforts of everyone trying to earn a living from their creativity.

Imagine if this were your image and Nike posted it to Instagram with the caption, "Hey, look at this cool photo by Andy Day." Just because it's not directly selling a product doesn't mean that it's not commercial use. If it's conveying Nike's brand's values, it's advertising.

In this recent article, I explain that complaining about others working for free is pointless and that it’s just a symptom of how neoliberalism functions more broadly. Maybe I should be more resigned about photographers gleefully handing over their work for content marketing, but there is a fundamental difference: at least when you work for free, you're fully aware that you are being exploited because you put the hours in and your bank balance stays the same as it was before. If you happily let Starbucks use your imagery, it feels different: there's no investment of time, money or expertise on your part. An image that would otherwise sit and do nothing is now being seen with zero effort from you. My impression is that people simply don't understand how their images have value, and how their work can be used to craft a company's relationship with its customers.

Ideally, we need a better understanding of the role that commercial practices play in our everyday lives. Having Van Son tell his followers that direct advertising should be paid but content marketing can be free is reflective of how little we understand of how Instagram operates, and how opaque it is as an advertising platform. Just as we need to educate ourselves about giving our time and services away for nothing, we need to become more aware of what value our images have in a world dominated by content marketing.

I'd be grateful for your thoughts: have you given away your work because a company wanted to use it on their Instagram? Please leave a comment below.

Lead image is a composite using a photo by Anderson Miranda.

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LA M's picture

Until banks and other creditors start accepting "exposure" and "goodwill" and "opportunity" etc as payment there is very little I will do for free.

I've heard variations of the idea around doing free work and frankly none of it really makes senses for a professional unless it's practice or charity.

Last I checked Starbucks isn't getting evicted from any of it's store locations or crying the blues in bankruptcy court...

Motti Bembaron's picture

"...I was so shocked that I almost spat out my coffee..

It wasn't Starbuck coffee, right? I would feel bad for you if you spilled a $20 java cup.

Deleted Account's picture

If it was just a tall black coffee, (what I drink) it would have been $1.85 worth.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Last time I walked into Starbuck was five years ago in Chicago. There was nothing else around so we had no choice. I was amused by how the baristas were doing their best to look cool with wool hats (in August), Arabic Cafia around their shoulder, etc. I was amused until I saw the total of our two coffees and two pieces of cakes came to.

Always baffles me when I am in Europe and see people go into a Starbuck. People, you are in Europe!!!!! Even a small family owned kiosk has better cappuccino :-)

Anyway, why in the hell would you give this multi-billion corporation anything for free. They should be embarrassed by asking. Then again, like Apple, they know they have a plethora of clients who would do just that.

Robert Teague's picture

Because sometimes you only want drip coffee, which many of those local places don't have.

Owain Shaw's picture

That's why there are so few Starbucks in places like Spain. The only people who go there are likely to be tourists because locals refuse to pay double or triple the price, and rightly so. Get your café con leche elsewhere, people.

Deleted Account's picture

From the sound of it, I would assume he's trying to grow his social influence and then use it to leverage other brands. The worst part of every social media is how they incentivize clout.

Thomas Perry's picture

I think Brendan just doesn't want to spend the time and energy on this when he would rather be shooting. Which I understand.

But he really should work with an IP lawyer. I believe there are those out there that do the work for you. Yes, you likely lose a large amount of any payment received. But all the work is done by them. You can continue to focusing on what you love and let others use their skills to your benefit. You might even get a little extra cash out of it. Maybe you could get a lot more if you did the work yourself, but then you have to spend the time. So you can decide how much of your time is worth it to protect your IP.

Another thing with Instagram, is the Insta part. So what if your illegally shared image is taken down a few days after it was put up. Most of the views happen in the first few days/hours? Deleting an image posted from last week? whoop dee do. The eyeballs on your image already happened. Updating the image a week after a post does nothing. The time has passed.

I swear I saw a YouTube video in the past year where a professional photographer has a lawyer/firm to protect their IP. They contact the photographer with each violation and the photographer can decide what to do. But then the firm does their job and the photographer goes on doing what they love.

AC KO's picture

I’ve posted comments to Brendan van Son’s other YouTube videos, encouraging him to better protect his copyright assets; he doesn’t care. As Thomas Perry wrote, he’s all about creating imagery.

Thomas Perry also wrote, “But he really should work with an IP lawyer. I believe there are those out there that do the work for you.”

That’s Brendan van Son’s best play: Continue to photograph, build-up his social media followers, AND forward unlicensed image uses to his copyright litigator.

I’m aware of about three US-based copyright attorneys who will take infringement actions on contingencies *IF* the image was *timely* registered and NOT used within the scope of Fair Use; one NYC attorney will even accept infringements not timely registered.

I checked the USCO’s Public Catalog: Like most photographers, Brendan van Son doesn’t register his images, so his legal options to pursue money damages may be limited.

Brendan van Son may feel that being a Canadian, he can skip registering his creative media with the USCO. American, Canadian, EU, Australian, and other international photographers can pursue statutory money damages AND attorney fees AND legal costs against US-based infringers (at the court’s discretion), but *ONLY* if their works were timely registered (vs. actual damages and disgorgement of profits, if any!).

All photographers who choose NOT to timely register their copyright, should, at the very least, affix them with watermarks/logos, metadata, copyright attribution, a name with URL and/or social media handle, image name jpeg title, licensing information, and other “Copyright Management Information” (CMI).

US-based infringers who use Photoshop or another editing software to knowingly remove, change, or cover up CMI to hide their copyright infringements or to further induce infringements can be financially liable from US$2,500 to US$25,000 PLUS the photographer’s attorney fees PLUS legal costs, AND other remedies (at the court’s discretion). The GREAT news here is that a timely registered copyright is NOT required to pursue CMI violations (17 USC §§ 1202-1203). There are US copyright litigators who will pursue CMI violations on contingency, as well.

So, until Brendan van Son and other photographers begin including copyright registration and/or CMI in their photography production, they can pretty much only file DMCA take-down notices against US-based infringers.

Yin Ze's picture

If only my dentist could give his hard earned experience away for free in exchange for exposure on Dentagram.

Tony Clark's picture

As a professional, I would think that he’d understand the value of images. Giving a business free content devalues not only his own work but that of every other photographer.

Jen Photographs's picture


Dave F's picture

I generally agree. However, I also scoured this article for any mention of an attempt to contact Brendan van Son for clarification or comment, which seems painfully obvious for an article like this. I know, this isn't "journalism". But still, this is a news site. Even if it is a 100% opinion piece (and to be clear, I agree with the opinion), I feel like there's a certain duty to give the subject a chance to respond. This isn't some no name blog; I think FStoppers has enough cred to pursue due diligence and get a response.

LA M's picture

He made a video and posted it.

Isn't he clear enough?

Dave F's picture

No, because the sticking point in this article is based on a relatively minor comment from the original video. I'm pretty sure any normal editorial or opinion piece would seek clarification from the source, or at least the opportunity to comment. It's not like it's just some minor mention here; the entire article is based on it.

John Dawson's picture

Why? One word: phot-ho

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

Do they give coffee away for free? Kinda answers the question then......

Rob McDonagh's picture

I assume that he is making money somewhere, maybe he just considers all of his instagram posts marketing and is happy for as many people as possible to see it as long as it is credited. A lot more people will his 'marketing' images if Starbucks re-posts them.

Mike Ditz's picture

It's the new economy my friend!

C Fisher's picture

I thought it was quite odd but didn't bother to comment lol

Elliot Sander's picture

Oh, god... He said where does HE draw the line. Does it mean that everyone that watched the video should follow the same? Is there a law that Brendan broke because he decided it's OK for him to let Starbucks use his image? Are people no longer allowed to have their opinions?

Andy Day's picture

"Does it mean that everyone that watched the video should follow the same?"

"Is there a law that Brendan broke because he decided it's OK for him to let Starbucks use his image?"

"Are people no longer allowed to have their opinions?"
People can have their opinions.

Any other questions? 😂

Matt Barker's picture

Based on the logic in this article. Wouldn't Brandon (or any photographer) have to ask Starbucks permission to post the picture in the first place? Otherwise he's using their IP to sell a product; his brand.

Lauren Bath's picture

It’s difficult to explain to creatives that haven’t been involved in Instagram since the beginning. I’ve been on the platform for almost nine years and it’s always been a community where accounts share other accounts work with credit. In fact, I can attribute my career change from chef to professional travel photographer to being re-shared by tourism Australia so much in the early days. If big brands and accounts don’t share your work, you don’t get seen and you don’t grow your account. You say that exposure doesn’t pay the bills? It’s controversial, but I’ve found the opposite to be true. I’m the same as Brendan though, I don’t allow anyone to share my image for direct marketing but if a big brand or big account wants to share my work with credit I’m generally thrilled. I know a lot of photographers on both sides of the fence, but I’d implore you to keep an open mind on this one. No organization has the budget to pay for 100% of the content that they share on social media, it’s always been about user generated content. And I don’t believe that I’m taking work away from other creatives because I know how budgets often work in big organizations, and I know for sure that without user generated content they wouldn’t be able to keep up with the content demands of today. By all means, get paid what you’re worth when any organization wants to use an image of yours for marketing purposes, I actually have a photo agent that takes care of this for me. But understand that, when it comes to Instagram, it’s not black and white.